My First Black Tie Affair

In the summer of ’88 I fell for a cute guy named Jim.  I didn’t know much about him and was still recovering from my mother’s death 6 months before, and from my then boyfriend’s unceremonious dumping of me a month or so after her death.  Oh and there was the small matter of Mr. Wrong knocking up his coworker while Mom was dying, but he didn’t tell me that, my friend Tapley did.  All in all it had been a pretty shitty 6 or 8 months, with a few miracles thrown in to keep me from complete despair.  Jim sure seemed like one of them at the time.

I had just moved to the maid’s quarters of a big apartment on East 66th between Second and Third.   My previous apartment, on Pearl Street, between Peck Slip and Dover, was nearly under the Brooklyn Bridge and so close to the Fulton Fish Market it smelled.  My windowless bedroom in the basement there gave giant water bugs free rein and I had to share it with a roommate.  East 66th promised privacy with my own room and bathroom.  The East 66th Street roommates were  aging, monosyllabic WASPs who were cash-poor and always wanted my rent at least a week in advance.  Still, I liked having my own space and the neighborhood seemed very Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

One of the other miracles that occurred that summer happened during my first visit to the Hamptons.  I arrived as a guest of a guest at the doorstep of a crumbling mansion in Quogue, overwhelmed by the amount of people living there on the weekends.  I was adding to the problem of course.  After a night there, a very nervous woman who kept talking about her psychiatrist confronted me, demanding to know why I was so happy.  I told her, “Look, my mother died but the air here, the quiet and swimming in the ocean is healing me I think.”  She shook her head and blurted out, “I can’t take this, I bought a full share and you can just have it, I hate this place!”  Um, OK.  Suddenly there I was, the penniless girl who had never been to the Hamptons gifted with a free place to stay at the beach, every weekend, for the rest of the summer and into the fall.  I could not believe my luck and silently thanked the gods for neurotic New Yorkers.

Every Friday after work I went to Penn Station to take the train to Quogue.  The city was sweltering and miserable, plus the maid’s quarters had no air conditioning.  I loved riding the train, but I never sat inside in the cars.  Instead, with my daypack slung over my shoulders I stood between the cars watching the gray, graffitied buildings slowly fall away to row houses with an occasional tree flashing by as we made our slow, rocking way out of the city.  Then the tiny hint of green from the occasional tree morphed into more green as we rolled through the suburbs of Long Island.  In time I could catch a whiff of the ocean and would start gulping in the air like a drowning woman.  I stuck my head out the door window, like an eager dog, looking forward, eyes watering, watching the suburbs melt into something much more charming.  Once we were chugging by the Quarry, a magical spot filled with miraculous, clean, fresh water, I knew Quogue was the next stop.  Sometimes someone would be there to pick us city stragglers up and take us to the house.  Other times I took a cab.  Once or twice I hitch hiked with men in rumpled seersucker so surprised at my request for a lift they thought I was trying to pick them up.  But they always said yes and thankfully never pursued me.  After a milk shake at Perry’s Drug Store, I made my way to the mansion’s grounds a few blocks away.

My tiny quarters at the big beach house were perfect; private and comfortable, with a bath down the hall and communal meals.  I began running out to the beach in the mornings, swimming in the waves to cool down, then collapsing on the sand where I never had enough sunscreen on.  It was pure heaven and I think I was slowly healing from a lot of different things.

I met Jim on my fifth weekend.  He had black hair and blue eyes, like the Black Irish from Galway I’d read about.   We started dating and 10 minutes later he invited me to his sister’s wedding.  I said of course I would love to go.  The wedding was in 2 weeks in a place I’d never heard of:  Purchase, New York.

Because I wanted to make an excellent impression on Jim’s family, I bought an overpriced green Jacquard silk long-sleeved Laura Ashley dress with a high lace collar, something a 6-year old flower girl might wear.  I took the train to Purchase that Saturday morning with my clothes on a hanger covered in drycleaning plastic because I didn’t own a garment bag.  Jim picked me up in a real Ford woody station wagon, the kind you see in bad surfing movies.  I don’t know what I was expecting but when we turned off the road a little past Pepsico World Headquarters up the long winding, gravel driveway, it became clear Jim was rich, or at least his family was.  I wondered why we always went Dutch.

The main house was a big, Georgian thing with columns, and there was a giant tent already set up for the reception in the back yard that I was to learn was called the West Lawn.  I met Jim’s parents and tried not to take their cool reception personally.  But it turns out it was about me, at least in part.  We somehow ended up talking about the Vietnam War and I mentioned my dad had been a squadron commander and full Colonel.  Then I added that it seemed he was finally coming to terms with what a mistake the war had been.  Jim’s father leapt to his feet and said, “We were fighting the Communists’ take over of Asia!”  I almost laughed, but stopped myself.  He was serious!  Bob ushered me out of their living room to a guest room where I could change for the wedding.  In the hallway were photos of Jim’s father with many famous people, including Henry Kissinger.  I asked about the photos and Jim said, “Kissinger will be at the wedding today if you want to meet him.”  Then  I noticed four photos with Nixon and Jim’s father.  “What are these?” I asked in disbelief.  “Dad was Special Assistant to Nixon.”  I wanted to ask more questions but my jaw had dropped to the floor.  Also it was time to change into my inappropriately juvenile dress.

The wedding was a Catholic affair with a full mass.  I figured out pretty quickly how wrong my dress was.  All of the women, with the exception of Jim’s other sister who was a nun, were garbed in chic, designer outfits, none of them long-sleeved with high lace collars and truly unfortunate white stockings.  But at least there were some other tall women there and that made me feel good.  Back at the house uniformed waiters plied us with drinks and appetizers while a quartet played.  It was lovely.  Then we all sat down under the vast, yellow and white striped tent, and had a fabulous dinner.  I thought I might need a wedding like this too someday, perhaps without a 6’1″ flower girl.

As the plates were cleared and the dance floor readied, everyone was asked to walk out towards the East Lawn.  That was when the fireworks began.  Apparently the Grucci Brothers did weddings, or at least weddings in Purchase, New York.  After a show that rivaled any big city’s 4th of July celebration, a gigantic, Love-American-Style heart with the names of the bride and groom inside burst into flames and sparklers.  Henry Kissinger was even clapping and smiling at the display, something I’d never seen him do on television.  William F. Buckley was there too, but when we were introduced he seemed like the same ass in person as he was in print.  However he was Jim’s father’s dear friend and sailing buddy so I tried hard to pretend to be delighted to meet him and his wife.  Still, I could not shake the feeling I’d been dropped behind enemy lines.  Someone even said to me, “Where did you prep?”  I was worried my identity in this sea of incredibly privileged strangers who apparently loved and approved of Richard Nixon, would soon be discovered. Like any delusional overgrown flower girl, I decided Jim could not possibly be anything like his family.

The dancing started and immediately the groom, one of the non-murdering Skakels of Greenwich, Connecticut, grabbed me and threw me over his shoulder and spun around. That would have been fine if it wasn’t the bride and groom’s first dance, plus it was the first time anyone ever attempted such a thing with me, the 6’1″ Amazon.  I kept boogieing when he put me back on the floor as if strange men hefting onto their shoulders happened every day.  He did the same to his bride and other women for the rest of the evening.  I decided it was some sort of upper class mating ritual.  That night we stayed on a sailboat in Stamford and caught the train to the city from there the next morning.  On the way home Jim asked me to go to a black tie affair at the New York Hilton in a few weeks.  Of course I said yes, still under my delusional impression he could not possibly be as conservative as his family.

We went on a few more dates and unbeknownst to Jim, I decided I might be in love and this upcoming dinner dance was probably where Jim would propose.  In retrospect, there was absolutely nothing, other than my wild imagination, that would have led anyone to believe Jim was at all serious about me.  Oh and we’d been dating all of five weeks.

Because I never made it to prom, was too tall to effectively play dress up and wanted to make up for lost time at the ripe old age of 25, I was overcome with a series of expensive ideas right before our special night.  In addition, my law school loans came through and I had some serious cash in my bank account.  I made an appointment at Elizabeth Arden’s Red Door Salon for the works:  facial, manicure, pedicure, makeup and hair.  Most people know to not wear makeup after someone has been picking at your freshly steamed face, but not me.  And the woman who applied the coats and coats of makeup to my inflamed skin meant well, but I looked a lot like a circus clown once she was through.  A second woman did my hair, which is to say she teased it within an inch of its life and then lacquered it into a helmet with gallons of Aquanet as if the 1960’s were not 20 years past.  I emerged from the Red Door Salon feeling freakish and looking exactly that.  Still, since I was no doubt becoming engaged that evening, I was pleased I prepared myself so luxuriously.

I walked over to Madison Avenue to a little place called One Night Stand where, for a mere $450 plus a credit card security deposit of $6,000, I rented an Oscar de la Renta gown and a mink stole.  I bought long black satin gloves at Bloomingdale’s, along with black suede pumps, a tasteful beaded purse I would return the next day, and my first strapless bra.  My old boyfriend from Paris, E, generously supplied the expensive-looking costume emerald and diamond jewelry to wear.  He worked in the business.

The dress was black velvet, strapless and in pure 80’s fashion, adorned with three,large, ridiculous green silk bows down the front.  It was maxi-length and so tight I could only take tiny steps.  Jim was supposed to pick me up but called from Connecticut to say he was delayed while hunting.  I didn’t know what one could hunt in Connecticut but I hoped it wasn’t female.  I assured him it was no problem meeting him at the Hilton.

The tiny steps made getting anywhere take hours so I left early.  After spending so much of my student loan money on renting my clothes, I thought I would save some money by taking the subway.  That was a bad choice but I suffered through the stares and emerged in midtown a little sweaty but right on time.  I was like an overgrown Geisha in my gown, making my way through the crowds.  I was only missing one of those tiny, elaborately painted Japanese parasols, that is if a Geisha was ever a sweaty, 6’1″ woman with freckles shelacked into a plastic mask of clown makeup.

I arrived in the great ballroom surprised to find it full but there were two seats way up front near the dais.  I sat there primly, waiting patiently for Jim, gnawing only on a stale dinner roll.  I didn’t want to eat my rubber chicken without him, especially with an engagement looming.

Jim strode in wearing his grandfather’s tuxedo and diamond cufflinks, looking like a million dollars and only about an hour and 45 minutes late.  My plate had been cleared and the dinner roll was not nearly enough.  I should have at least had it with butter, given the events that were to come to pass that evening.  The room we were in became the Big Band Room and the ballroom down the wide hall was the DJ’d dance room.  I saw my sister and her date, a casual friend of ours, laughing and having fun.  Jim seemed a little grim, but I thought that was because he was mad at himself for being so late.

Once the Lester Lanin Orchestra started up though, I once again felt that fairy tale feeling as Jim whirled me around the dance floor.  After I stepped on his toes for the 9th time, he said he thought I was a bit controlling.  I laughed and told him liberal feminists always led, even while dancing.  He did not find that was funny at all, and seemed grumpier than ever.  We found our rhythm and I noticed my sister dancing up to us with her date.  She swerved into me, planted an elbow to get my attention and said loudly, “Boob’s out!”  I looked at her confused and then looked down.  Sure enough, my Oscar de la Rented as I affectionately called it and my black strapless bra were pulled down below my right breast in a daring display of avante guard fashion.  I pulled away from Jim to pull up my bra and gown, mortified.  Jim started walking away, rather abruptly, saying he wanted to go really dance in the next room.  I followed him like the obedient Japanese woman I was trying to be in my oppressive de la Rented gown, almost tripping and falling in the process.

Billy Idol’s “White Wedding” was playing in the DJ’d room and we started to dance.  Like walking, this kind of dancing proved nearly impossible in the black velvet medieval curtain I was wearing.  Plus rock and roll dancing seem to encourage a certain topless flair to the outfit.  I had one eye on my mink stole in the corner because the $6,000 deposit was beginning to weigh on me.  The combination of these stresses did not make me a very attentive dance partner.  We sat for a moment to cool off and I felt the rivulets of sweat pouring down my forehead, neck, torso and legs.  I could taste Aquanet too.  Jim leaned in to me, I thought for a kiss or perhaps a marriage proposal.  Instead, over the din of “Billy Jean” he said, “I feel really trapped in this relationship.”  Needless to say I was surprised, having blindly not picked up on any of his many signals throughout the evening.

Within minutes he was dancing with his soon-to-be new girlfriend, no doubt a proper conservative who had never flashed a breast at the Lester Lanin Orchestra.  I shrunk into a corner, gathered my mink stole around my sweaty shoulders and left to the beat of Madonna’s “Like A Prayer.”  I splurged on a cab and made it back to my apartment with only a shattered ego and an Oscar de la Rented rash around my torso, both of which healed in a week or so.

Later I found out Jim instigated tearing down the protest shanties at Dartmouth while at college there; shanties put up to protest Dartmouth’s endowment’s investment in South Africa, which was still under Apartheid.  The apple did not apparently fall far from the tree after all.  Me, I was saved from an ill-fated union, even though that union was just an invention of my own mind, that would have included Nixon-loving Reaganites for whom Apartheid was a good investment.

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3 Comments

Filed under Backstory, Sheer Idiocy

3 responses to “My First Black Tie Affair

  1. Jo

    I think I saw a photo and you looked beautiful!

  2. Kate

    I remember the night, remember the dress. And you were beautiful. You were. Bob was an ass. I always thought so, but you were in “love” and even sisters cannot stop each other when the heart governs…

    You write beautifully. Very funny and well, those were the days.

  3. Your story brings back memories of our year in New York, 1946 – 47. I was an interne at Queens General Hospital and Nadine and I lived in Jamaica. We loved New York, exploring it whenever I had a day off. We walked across the Brooklyn Bridge and explored the neigberhood at the base of the bridge. went to the Metropolitan Opera and saw Nadine Connor and Helen Trauble in Hansel and Grettel. We has seats in the last row of the gallery. They cost $1.25 We will tell you more sometime.

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